WE NO SOONER touch the figure of Robert Frost than he wriggles away from us -- from biographer, from critic, from reader -- elusive as a halfback. In his lifetime people tried simplifying him into a lovable rustic. Frost lent a hand to this project, as bizarre as hiring Currier & Ives to illustrate Proust. After his death, Frost's biographer simplified him into an ogre of vanity and vengefulness. Credulous critics, who believe what they are told, rushed to call Frost a monster. Nobody's tackled him yet.

In Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, William Pritchard refuses to simplify, which is the first essential. This introduction to Robert Frost is alert, skeptical, generous and shrewd -- on the work and on th life. Richard Poirier's Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing remains the best criticism of the poetry, but Pritchard's volume provides an approach to the whole enigmatic man. If Pritchard does not throw Robert Frost for a loss -- my homely analogy destroys itself -- at least he describes the game Frost plays.

Frost was obsessed with freedom or independence. He wore the invisible motto: noli me tangere. Impulse or play was primary for him, and not only because he was Emersonian. Pritchard shows how the poetry's whimsicality paired itself with "guardedness," as Frost called it. They cannot tackle you when they have no idea where you will zigzag next; if you don't know your own moves before you make them, it's likely that they won't either.

Of course anyone so obsessed with evasion or escape must continually feel captive, must live in the conviction of an internal jail . . . As Pritchard recounts Frost's restless removal from house to house -- our rustic bard, peripatetic as D.H. Lawrence, resided at the end in Ripton, Vermont, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Miami, Florida -- we watch the poet avoiding the imprisonment of staying still. . . .

Although Pritchard's observations from the life are useful, this book is no biography. As in his earlier Lives of the Modern Poets, Pritchard shows himself a good reader but no narrator. In his desire for brevity, he must omit much that is central, but his choices for attention are arbitrary. We hear little about the poet's father, who anticipates Frost's obsession with freedom; the elder Frost was a Copperhead, the son's name Robert Lee. There are acres of Amherst, where Pritchard teaches, and absences elsewhere: Pritchard tells us that Frost's three years at the University of Michigan "somehow do not engage the imagination as . . . the earlier term at Amherst does." Oddly enough, people in Ann Arbor seem to differ.

Pritchard writes, not a biography, but notes in the margin of a biography. The later is, of course, Lawrence Thompson's monumental work, completed by a graduate assistant after Thompson's death, and recently abridged into one ghastly volume. Pritchard spends pages arguing with Thompson, especially at the beginning of this volume, to give examples of Thompson's willful malice in inerpreting Frost's motives. Maybe he spends too many pages arguing, but Pritchard's scolding remains useful and corrective, for Thompson's biography, irreplaceable as reference, uses unspeakable prose to erect a monument of sullen stupidity. It creates a grotesque figure of the poet that prevents readers from seeing past the man to the poems.

All in all, Frost suffered after his death from the devotion of his friends. Perhaps he invited this revenge, since he tended to surround himself with people who would not contradict him in this life. Not only did his official biographer take three-volume, muffin-headed vengeance on the man who absorbed his life and would not die, but Frost's posthumous editor rewrote his poems. Pritchard mentions The Poetry of Robert Frost, our only complete text, edited by a genteel Visigoth who imposed more than a thousand alterations of the poet's punctuation, in the name of regularity -- by which the editor means the standards of Freshman English. His revisions change Frost's rhythm, pitch, and pace: the old poet's cherished "sentence-sounds."

Pritchard writes well about Frost's doctrine of "sentence-sounds," his contribution to poetic theory which is also his innovation as an experimental poet. This critic remembers that he is talking about poems, works of art, understanding that style is content, as he shows how sentence structure and rhythm create meaning. No hagiographer, Pritchard is properly skeptical from time to time, about man and work; but mostly his task is to reveal Frost at his best, to write in service to the art of poetry, or to one man's practice of it. He brings to his subject anecdotes fom the life, quotations from letters and talk -- anything that will serve his purpose.

His purpose is not easy. Robert Frost was ambivalence incarnate, therefore human rather than monstrous, and therefore supremely difficult to name. Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, compared to Frost, are simple fellows. Frost's work and life, like the wittiest halfback, fake left and go right; look up in order to dig down. If Frost tells us that poems must fulfill subjects, which makes them dutiful, he quickly adds that a poem must also be wild. I take this example from Pritchard, who also recalls that at his last poetry reading Robert Frost announced, "It's a wonderful world," and added, "To hell with it!"